Few eco-issues are as controversial as the re-introduction of wolves onto federal lands. Can these apex predators co-exist with people and livestock? Depends on how you define ‘co-exist.’

In what is the latest in an ongoing series of clashes with New Mexico state wildlife officials, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to release up to 10 Mexican gray wolf pups and a mating pair into the Gila National Forest. This was in the southwestern area of the state in 2016.

According to reporting in The Santa Fe New Mexican, the move comes after Alexandra Sandoval, the director of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, refused to issue a permit for the wolf release.

An internal memo from the federal agency sent to members of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Team, a group of scientists, wildlife managers and eco-activists that formed in 2011, stated that the release is part of a recovery program for a species at risk of extinction.

“It is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s obligation under the law to recover this species, and reintroductions into the wild from the more genetically diverse captive population are an essential part of that recovery process,” the newspaper quoted the memo as stating.

In June, New Mexico Game and Fish Department commissioners unanimously rejected the federal plan and refused to issue a permit for the wolf release to occur in 2015. Late last month, “despite protests from dozens of environmental groups,” as the newspaper reported, the commission again unanimously rejected the federal government’s appeal of the permit decision.

The good, the bad, the unknown

So who’s on the correct side of the wolf re-introduction program?

  • State officials who express concerns about livestock predation and potential attacks on people?
  • Or environmental advocates, who contend that the species faces extinction without additional breeding stock?

There is no denying the risk that wolves pose to other animals and, though far less imminent, to hikers or campers out in wilderness areas. Wolves are incredibly efficient killers, and their reliance on pack behavior makes them even deadlier than solitary hunters, such as cougars or bears.

Paul Kienzle, the Game Commission chairman, expressed concerns about wolves coexisting with people and livestock. According to the newspaper, he referenced a wolf that was recently shot and killed, saying, “That was a problem animal that was ultimately put down.”

On the other hand, from a biological standpoint, environmental advocates are correct in arguing that without additional breeding stock, the small number of wolves in New Mexico will face eventual extinction from inbreeding. Even though a number of captive Mexican gray wolves have been released onto federal lands in the Southwest since 1998, they remain the most endangered wolf subspecies, with only about 100 animals known to exist in the remote areas of southern New Mexico and Arizona.

“Releasing Mexican wolves to the wild is the only way to save these animals from extinction,” said Michael Robinson of the eco-advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s vital now that enough wolves get released to diversify their gene pool and ensure they don’t waste away from inbreeding.”

Many people would dispute that, but a large part of opposition to re-introducing wolves stems from ignorance. People fear what they don’t understand, and ecologically speaking, wolves tend to have a positive impact on their ecosystems. For example:

  • The wolf’s primary prey are deer, antelope and elk, although they also feed voraciously on mice, squirrels, rabbits, muskrats, marmots, grouse and even songbirds.
  • Wolf packs will fight, kill or displace other predators, such as cougars, bears and coyotes, which can be a good thing: The coyote population has dropped 39% in Yellowstone National Park and 33% in Grand Teton National Park after wolves were reintroduced to those areas.
  • Wolves tend to selectively hunt younger, older or debilitated prey animals. According to research done by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the presence of wolves increases the proportion of healthy animals in deer or elk herds, leading to higher pregnancy and birth rates.

However, wolf-pack predation can have adverse effects. According to a predictive model developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, a single wolf kills as many as 30 “ungulates” a year, a term that refers to deer and elk but also cattle. Thus, 100 wolves in the wild can be expected to kill between 2,200 to 3,000 ungulates annually.

How many of those ungulates are cattle?

That is always the key question, and the source of much of the organized resistance to re-introduction programs.

There is a solution to the controversy, however. Whatever government agency moves forward with a wolf restoration plan must also provide funding to compensate ranchers or farmers whose stock end up being one of the 30 ungulates annually killed by each adult wolf.

Cattle owners’ grazing permits and their access to public rangeland doesn’t supersede federal initiatives to prevent species extinction, of course. But ranchers have rights, and one of them is the right to fair compensation for any animals that a wolf takes down.

That cannot be ignored, no matter what environmental benefits a healthy wolf population provide.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.